Saturday, March 23, 2013

It Is March 2003 and You Are There

10 years ago, I found myself sitting on an airbase in the Middle East as part of the forces that were going to war against Iraq in a conflict then known as Operation Iraqi Freedom.  At the time, I decided that I needed to record what I was doing for posterity. I know, it is a bit egotistical to figure that anyone would want to read anything that I had to say – – but it might happen you never know. So, this week, for your reading pleasure, I am reposting a few entries that I posted way back then on my website Life in Germany (before such things became known as blogs).  A few things that you might want to be aware of before you start reading:

How I ended up going in the first place is a story all its own. At the time that this event occurred I had one person assigned to me who had the responsibility of going down range to accompany military units in the field. Most people who deployed were identified weeks in advance, to include my employee. This gave them time to pack, and prepare, and mentally focus on the job ahead. Three days prior to his schedule departure date he claimed to have a back injury and could not deploy. Since I had recently come off duty with the Air Force Reserve, all of my training for combat contingencies was still current and therefore, I was the one who ended up deploying.
  • It should be obvious from the name of my website that I was actually assigned in Germany, but if you miss that I was assigned to Germany and had arrived there just three months before 9/11.  It was 9/11 that caused me to start posting a blog so that family and friends in the US knew what was going on.

  •  You might notice from the pictures that we are all wearing the wrong uniforms,  you are right.   Our unit was supposed to deploy within Europe not the Middle East.  So, we had Woodland versus Desert BDUs.  I figured if we all stood still in a group that we would just look like a clump of bushes and they might ignore us.
  • At the time I created these entries, I was not allowed to mention where I was or what unit I was working for; now I can.  I was positioned at Incirlik Airbase, Turkey and I was also assigned to the Joint Multinational Forces Command Center -- I am pretty sure that was probably renamed several times during the conflict.
  • The purpose for being in Turkey was to support the 4th Infantry Division that was supposed to go into Iraq in the north via the Turkish border. However, that never happened as Turkey would not approve our forces going across their border. Eventually, the 4th Infantry Division went into Iraq through the South, although I did not accompany them. 
  • The patriotism and pride felt by myself and those I deployed with was genuine and based on doing what we were called upon by our nation to do. I am not judging through the prism of history whether or not the invasion of Iraq was the best course of action. That ship has sailed and is over and cannot be changed now. Dwelling upon it now is the same as trying to determine if FDR could’ve handled Pearl Harbor differently or claiming that if Truman had allowed McArthur to talk to Ho Chi Minh Vietnam have been averted.  It is always easier to judge actions in hindsight – – it is much harder to make decisions and live with the consequences in real time. (BTW Yes and probably)
  • What you are about to read is unedited and includes my opus on Jell-O the night the war began.  You think of some strange things at times like those, but you do have to keep an eye on Jell-O.  It jiggles.

So, without further ado here is my historical account of the events that occurred a decade ago...

Day #5 -- 18 March 2003

I was awoken at 5 by the first guy who flipped on the TV and saw the ultimatum.  No one here wants a war; they are the ones that have to fight it.  But there comes a time when you have to stand up against a tyrant – that time has come.   We all know it here.  It is better to be doing the job that needs to be done, than to delay it.

Because I was up that early I actually got a hot shower for the first time in three days.  I don’t know how much you guys see in the news about things over here, especially closer to the front.  Right now they get a shower once a week.  It is hard to bitch about a cold shower when at least you get one daily. 

The US is said to have the best equipped and trained military in the world.  Yes, we do.  But we also try to provide the troops with the best available where they are, always.  We may have it cushy compared to the guys on the Iraqi frontline, but there are people further back who have it better than we do – and so on.  At each location you would have to say we get the best available.  But most never say that – after all it is a GI’s prerogative to bitch.

I have managed to start my work out regimen again.  After falling down the stairs just before Thanksgiving, I had to quit doing anything for a while to give my back and wrist a chance to recuperate.  I am slowly getting back into it bit by bit.   The reason I mention this here is that I am spending a lot of time walking already.  We live 2 miles from the base proper and have no dedicated transport to get around.  That has helped to force me into moving more.  Not a bad thing.

Actually, there is an army of taxis here that continually roams the base picking up and dropping off.  They are all cleared to be on base and charge about $3 to get anywhere we can go.  But just like a cop never being where you need him, these taxis often seem to be anywhere but where I need to be picked up.  It’s okay the walking does me good.

One question I did get asked by a friend was just how the heck I ended up here.    Well, one of the people I supervise was originally assigned to take on this assignment; however, three days before he was scheduled to deploy he hurt his back.   The slot needed to be filled and I was prepared to go.  Luckily they delayed the departure for a few more days and I had time to get my stuff together before hitting the road.

I don’t like being away from home but I have a mission to accomplish and if I do it right everyone I support will be able to do their job and the troops will have the support they need.  I am just part of the picture – but I am proud to do my part.

 Day #6 -- 19 March 2003

The day before the night that it might all begin.  It was a rather droll day, very routine.  But just under the surface was what may happen later tonight.  We are very aware of the clock.  Security was raised and we expect to be carrying chemical warfare suits with us shortly.    It is a strange sort of uneasiness that everyone feels but no one mentions.

This is the room I shared with the Chaplains
Today four more of our folks arrived.  We are no longer the “new guys”. I was able to take them on a short tour and point out where to eat, where to use a phone, and the locations of the gym and the post office.  I guess I have now been here long enough to be a veteran.   Due to the number of folks arriving daily our “newbies” ended up down in tent city rather than in the houses.  At least they are in a tent that holds only 12, and it does have dividers in it so they get a little more privacy. 

I have noticed that within our group everyone is starting to settle in and we are getting to know each other.  Ever heard that old saying there are no dumb questions?  Chris seems to find new ones everyday.  He is probably the youngest one in the crew and is very green.  On the other end of the spectrum is Troy, a Navy retiree who is now about to retire form Civil Service, almost every sentence starts with “Well we used to….”.  Cleavan’s claim to fame is that he got sick from the fish they served on the inbound flight.  He almost didn’t make it out of the car in time when he was going to hospital to get checked out – it would have been a mess.  Brett has faith that Saddam will just “quit” midway through the first round of bombing and we will be home real quick.  Cain is quiet, but occasionally adds comments that show true reflection.    The personalities are diverse but we have a common goal – to do our best and get home in one piece.  I know we will all get there.

 We watched the last episode of “Band Of Brothers” tonight.  Watching the scenes of Garmisch and Austria made me homesick.  Realizing what was actually accomplished during that period in history makes me proud to be an American and a little guilty that my generation tends to forget what sacrifices made by those before us. It is a moving story.

To those of you who have written:  Thanks!  Those messages that contained general words of support for our mission and our troops ended up on our entryway board or the office bulletin board to all to read.   Everyone here tends to share those types of messages.  Without meaning to,  you have supported more troops than just me.

To answer a few questions I have gotten, without giving away anything:  Yes, there are Navy here.  Also Marines, Air Force, DoD Agencies and the Army -- but I have not seen any Coast Guard.  There are Brits and Aussies too – BTW the one question I have been asked by them is how come our media seems to be obsessed with what movie stars have to say about the pending war.  I don’t have any sort of answer to that one – I would actually like to know the answer myself.  We do get both CNN and Fox News, Fox has less bias and seems to be getting the facts right more often.

You can't put a blackboard and pens in a room and not
expect people to get creative
During the day I seem to think of 100s of things I want to say, but by the time I sit down most of them escape me.  A few of the random ramblings I do remember: I have been able to call home and even help my son with homework quite often thanks to a cell phone – when my Dad was in Viet Nam we would get audio tapes weekly but that was about it.  I know I like it this way better.     Email makes it possible for me to share things I am thinking and what is going on with me “real time” that is also a first.  Even when I went to Kuwait we were not to a point technologically for me to have this much access.   I like that too.  I think it is a great idea to put reporters with units, I think that if they got to know the servicemen as people and not as “the enemy” it would bring a more truthful and less antagonistic attitude to the reporting.  BTW I haven’t seen the reporters that are with the units here, but I have heard we have a few.  France?  We don’t need France – history has shown that in the 228+ years since Lafayette they have been the ones needing us.  They have a right to their opinion; we have a right to ignore them.    Britain and Australia have never failed to be there.  Dump the French wine and croissant -- have a Fosters Lager and some Bangers & Mash instead.  I have heard this is going to be called Operation Iraqi Freedom – I can deal with that – I would rather be thought of as part of a freedom force than a conquering one.

Well, the late news just said that the sandstorm is finally dying down.  Given that bit of info – I have a feeling I will be woken by the sound of jet engines in a few hours (it is 2330 here now).   Everyone in the hooch is still up, even though most of us go in at 0600 – no surprise there.  We are to a point now that we almost need something to happen to relax.  Like I said before we are all worried about everyone but ourselves. 

Day #7 -- 20 March 2003

Jell-O is wonderful food.  It is fun to play with, feels squiggly on your tongue and slides down your throat-- without much chewing.  It is never too sweet or too cold.  Yup, Jell-O is wonderful food.    Believe it or not that was that extent of my thoughts tonight as I watched the news (keep in mind I am 7-9 hours ahead of most of you).  The reporters were doing their best trying to report something when not much is going on.  At this point I am exhausted, so I basically let the TV watch me eat my Jell-O  -- it was just background noise.  Besides you have to pay attention to Jell-O – it jiggles.

The view I saw on the way out
Late last night/early this morning they evacuated the dependents that were on the base here and shipped them back to the US as a precaution.  My Chaplain roommate spent a lot of time running in and out trying to smooth over problems.  It is what a Chaplain does.  I did my part to help by not getting too upset when he kept making noise running in and out all night.  It did not make for a restful night.

Today was long and tiring.  We are now carrying around our chemical suits, but are not wearing them.  I can, incidentally, get the mask on in less than 7 seconds, and the complete suit in less than 3 minutes.  We have not been targeted, the leadership is just being cautious.   See, they are trying to care of me too.    We also have a couple of Patriot batteries nearby to shoot down anything inbound.  That feels comforting too.

Spirits here are high, but everyone is a little leery as well.  The news is so sketchy and when you combine that with other information we are privy to it just makes it all seem a little unreal.  Are we really finally doing something or is it just confusion?  There is also an aura of exhaustion too, as the late nights & tension starts to catch up with us.  Tonight almost everyone went to bed by 2100.    I guess that since we launched against Saddam they all figured we were no longer waiting but starting and sleep might be important.

I am going to turn off the TV and turn in myself.    Well, after I get more Jell-O.

Day #8 -- 21 March 2003

First to answer a couple of questions:  I write everyday, actually every night just prior to turning in, then the next morning I review it and send it – if I can.  Some days I can’t send, so I just hold onto that day’s message until I can.  So if you get nothing on one day, you might get two the next.  I don’t mind if you share these with other folks, the only problem with that is that they don’t know me and might be confused by some personal references I make.  Like I keep saying, I am not directly in harms way.  So unless things change drastically I stand a better chance of being run over by some private in a Humvee than of even seeing an Iraqi that hasn’t surrendered.  I am not a combatant so the one thing I am not carrying with my other gear is any kind of weapon.  I have bunches of Army and Air Force guys around to protect me.  Yes, I have a camera and I am including a picture with this mailing.

Today was totally “on target”.  Things were smooth and energized as we went about our tasks.  My task here is almost complete, but rumors of a possible move are preventing me from “icing the cake” and heading home.  Things will be clearer on Monday.  If things keep going at this pace I will end up staying to help pack out, if things slow down I will go home and send the person who had the back injury back to pack the stuff out.

Me and Ghost Rider
Chris got an added nickname of “Ghost Rider”.  He is quick to grab the keys to the vehicle we now have, but he is just as quick to spend a lot of time lost trying to get from one place to another.   Before this is over he probably will have seen every square inch of this base.  Troy is coordinating a “steakacide” for tomorrow.  We scored the beef, a grill, and some charcoal.  We may end up using JP4 to light it (just like in my AF days), but we will have a decent meal when it is all said and done.   It is things we do like that that help with unit cohesiveness and esprit de corps.  We work together, we stay together, and we play together.   We are one team, with one focus.  Sounds like something from a recruiting commercial, but here you find the reality of it.

I actually got to go to real live movie tonight.  The movie was awful, but being in that environment was a total escape from what goes on here day to day.    From the theatre I walked through Tent City before I walked back to the hooch. 

The City has a feel all its own, it is almost the same spirit that you might find in a kids camp – but the jokes aren’t G or PG.  A lot of jokes about the French and while I was talking to a group of soldiers who were playing cards the news of another casualty came across the radio.  Utter silence.  Everyone paused, as if they were saying individual silent prayers – or wondering if they knew the victim.  As I looked from face to face I watched as the expressions changed from shock, to concern, to acceptance, to relief.   Someone made a nervous one-line joke, I didn’t catch it, and then after a pause there was nervous laughter.   As I walked on I heard the game starting again behind me.  As harsh as it may sound respects had been paid, condolences given – it was time for life to go on.   

Rather than catching a cab or grabbing a ride, I walked all the way back to the hooch and enjoyed the feel of the cold air around me.  The temperature has actually dropped over the past few days and the evenings feel chilly by comparison to the days.  I thought about all I had seen and heard that day.  War is a scary thing; there can be no doubt about that.  But there is not any doubt in the confidence I have in my nation and its Armed Forces.  If I can find any comfort at all in this situation, that is the extent of it.
Day #9 -- 22 March 2003

Today I wrapped up a lot of loose ends.  Most of the guys took the day off to get laundry done and prepare for the next phase of what might happen.  Since I will not be remaining here much longer and will not be moving forward, I used the time to be alone to make some adjustments and do some fine-tuning without having to interrupt anyone.

This was really the first time I had been totally alone since getting here.  Even when I write these entries late at night there are 11 other people nearby snoozing or watching TV.    It felt a little strange but not unwelcome.

When I was in Kuwait years ago I hated it because they kept us so separated from the local population that it felt like everyone that was not with you was a threat.   I have never felt so on edge in my entire life.   This time we are surrounded by locals and interact with then daily, so they are not a threat but part of the fabric of the landscape here.  Unlike Kuwait, we even have merchants we deal with to buy some of the local wares –.  We are learning who they are as people and they are learning about us as well.  When you start dealing with people on that level you realize that everyone is alike more than they are different.  It leads to less nervousness and more harmony.  It is harder for someone who knows you to hate you, than someone who has no relationship with you. Peoples are peoples.

Our “steakout” went well.  It was a time when we all got to know each other better and a time when we could blow off steam and refocus.  There are actually a total of 12 members in our immediate team; the 6 I have not mentioned yet are Gustavo, Santiago, Cam, Turner, Rod and Robert.  They are all active duty Navy and Army.

The team is very diverse in terms of where we originated from to form this group.  6 of us are from Wiesbaden, another from elsewhere in Germany, 1 from Richmond, 2 from Pennsylvania, 1 from Italy, and 1 from Japan (he won the “person who traveled the furthest to attend the war” award). As a result some of us knew each other but at least half the folks were unknown entities to anyone else.

As we all sat around after eating we started sharing some war stories.  War stories are not always about specific military battles, but more about life and personal “battles.  If you have never swapped stories like this, it turns into a hodge-podge of personal history as one person’s story prompts another in a different direction, which in turn spawns another.  The topics are as wide and varied as the group talking – and of course everyone is free to add comments as the storyteller spins his tale.  This does serve a functional purpose in circumstances like this – you learn about the people you are with on a human level not just on a functional one.

At one point the active duty guys started talking about “us” civilians.  It started out with them poking some good-natured fun at but they were all quickly in agreement that they admired us for being here.    It never really occurred to me before they mentioned it but you see, we are the only true volunteers here. 

The Army may be a volunteer force, but once in you go where you are sent or face the consequences.  The civilians that are here did not have to be. The consequences we may face are the result of the decision to come; we faced none for not coming.  When we were prepping and leaving what we knew was that we were within range of missiles, drones, and other “bad things” in Saddam’s arsenal.  The chemical gear we carry is real, as is all the other protective gear.  It is here for a reason, and we all knew it was likely to be needed.  There are no material rewards for the risk:  we can’t earn the campaign medals the soldiers do; we don’t get the tax breaks or additional pay either.  But we still came in spite of the risk.  As a result we have earned the respect of the active duty guys here with us.  Add to that the fact that we have all been crossing over into areas other than our individual specialties and helping out in any way needed and we have earned the respect of “an equal not just a tagalong”.  I for one appreciate that fact.  Even if it is not material it is a reward in its own right.

Day #10 -- 23 March 2003

When you live with a Chaplain, you get told when the church services are in subtle ways.  Brochures on your bed, times listed on the entryway board, sticky notes left on the mirror, etc.  He says he doesn’t mind if you don’t go, but he will make sure you know when it is.  Since I was slightly aware of when it was, I decided to drop in to refuel and say some words of thanks.    It was a nice service, but with all the dependents gone and only about 3 women at the service the singing tended to be bassy.

Overall, there are not many female service members here – I don’t think I have seen 20 the whole time I have been here.  Most of them are Air Force, the Army troops that are here are in specialties and units that are either closed to women or that have only recently been opened to them.  As a result there just aren’t any to send here from elsewhere.

The only picture of all of us together and in the middle of it the "bat phone" started ringing
The day was quiet and I only went in for 5 hours.  I will finish writing up my summary in the morning and I will have done all I can do.  My people can now reach out and touch anywhere in the world with data, voice, & digital imagery – in both classified and non-classified modes – with or without wires – with or without electricity.  Also, and in some ways more importantly to them, they can access their civilian email accounts, Fox News and ESPN as well.  With all that done I will probably pull out of here in the next 72 hours, if I can get clearances and a ride out. 

When I first got here and the Imams would start their calls to prayer at the local mosque the sound threw me.  That was the same singing that seemed to accompany every war movie that was set in the Middle East (think Iron Eagles) or movies where something bad happened in the Middle East (think  Midnight Express).  So, when I first heard it my body immediately tensed – a conditioned reflex.  I went from that to kind of ignoring it.  In the past few days though, when I listen I kind of like the sound of it and find it in some ways soothing.   It is just a part of the local colour that has grown on me.

Recent images from the war, the POWs and the incident with the 101st, have split emotions two ways.  No one here is scared or put off by the POW images – they are pissed off and ready to kick ass in retaliatory payback.  When the press asked if it affected US troops psychologically, to a man we all answered yes – it motivated us.  The incident in the 101st leaves most of us with just on question:  Why?  How can you possible be so upset about a situation or at a person to do something like that in a situation like this?  All of us have been mad, but never mad to that extent.  It is treason.  It is a tragedy.

Watched “The Patriot” tonight.  A lot of talk about freedom and fighting for what you believe in ad against tyranny.  Rest assured, there are a lot of folks here that meet that definition of Patriot.  


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